Panoramas of disaster

Wim Wenders’ photography show captures Ground Zero and Fukushima

Wim Wenders poses with one of his images at the Fundación Sorigué.
Wim Wenders poses with one of his images at the Fundación Sorigué. EL PAÍS

He could no longer sleep after the 9/11 attacks in New York. The images had turned into a recurring nightmare, and he finally decided that he had to go in there and take his own pictures. Wim Wenders sneaked into Ground Zero as an assistant to the official photographer after creating a photomontage of a press pass. On November 8, 2001 he walked in with a large bag filled with photographic equipment and spent half a day snapping shots. Five of those enormous panoramic images, over three meters long and one-and-a-half meters in height, are part of Wim Wenders Photographs, an exhibition now showing at the Sorigué Foundation, in the Catalan city of Lleida. The sheer size of the images is breathtaking; looking at them, the crumpled buildings and the orange diggers seem to come to life.

Besides the Ground Zero series, the show includes a selection of eight photographs of desert landscapes taken in Australia and the American West. The latter were the basis for Paris, Texas, one of the German director's most representative films and winner of the Golden Palm Award at Cannes. The exhibition ends with three landscape shots of the wake of the nuclear accident at Fukushima in 2011. These are possibly the most unsettling images of all, as they reflect the trail of radioactivity in the form of a halo that damaged the film negative.

“It’s the real picture, the one that reflects reality; that cannot be touched up”

Most of the 16 photographs have already been on display at art galleries in Europe and the United States, where they were part of larger exhibitions called Surface of the Earth and Places and Strange and Quiet. This is the first time that some of them have been shown in Spain; the choice of location is due to the Lleida foundation director's close friendship with managers of London's Blain Southern gallery, which represents Wenders: "I saw the pictures of Ground Zero and did not stop until I convinced them to take the show to Lleida," said Ana Vallès.

Speaking at the opening of the show, Wenders joked that he had to look the city up on Wikipedia because he had no clue where it was.

If Wenders feels obliged to be at the forefront of digital technology in his film endeavors — he made his Pina Bausch documentary in 3D and is also using this technique for his current movie, Everything Will be Fine — when it comes to photography he chooses to remain analogue. "It's the real picture, the one that reflects reality, the one that cannot be touched up. It may seem a little anachronistic, but it's a way to remain faithful to places," he said as he walked through the exhibition.

A traveler and a nomad, Wenders has taken thousands of photographs over the last 20 years in all the countries he has visited. He said that he originally wanted to be a painter, and even settled down in Paris in 1966. That was the beginning of his filmmaking career, which produced other classics such as Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire) and Lisbon Story. His photographer facet has been on view since 1986 at art galleries in Berlin, Shanghai, Rome and Bilbao.

Wenders got his first camera at age six, and at 10 an 8mm film camera

"I want the images that I see to say something to me," he explains. This observation has led him to capture desolate landscapes with slight traces of human presence, and dusty roads that seem to lead nowhere. His shots of Texas are reminiscent of the scenery that provided the background to the story of Travis, the main character in Paris, Texas. The images of Australia, with their deserts and roads in the middle of nowhere, create a sense of unease yet possess a strange magnetic quality.

Photography was his passion as a child. Wenders got his first camera at age six, and at 10 he received an 8mm film camera. "It was a part of me, I was always taking pictures, it's second nature to me," he says. He only used black and white for a while, but changed his mind when he contemplated the landscapes of Texas, with their 5,000 hues between yellow and brown, and the deep blue Australian skies.

And while moviemaking requires working with teams and being dependent on many variables, "with photography I am on my own. It is solitary work, and a blessing to me."

Wim Wenders Photographs. Until March 30 at Fundación Sorigué, C/ Alcalde Pujol 2 bis, Lleida.

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